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For a bachelor, there is no more dangerous person in the world than a happily married woman.
To such a female, an unattached man of position and property is a rough stone sticking out of life's wall. The more blissful her own union, the more convinced she becomes that the bachelor stone wants smoothing. She is sure it would be a much happier stone if it were as neatly chiseled and mortared as her husband.
So it was that Julian Hampton found himself seated beside the talkative widow, Mrs. Morrison, when he attended the Viscountess Laclere's banquet.
He made no special note of the way the viscountess watched the progress of their conversation, but he did not miss it either.
"Your occupation must be fascinating, Mr. Hampton," the comely widow said, when her very detailed description of her summer holiday in Brighton waned.
"Being a solicitor is very dull employment, in reality." Actually it wasn't, but the Mrs. Morrisons of the world would never understand why.
She laughed and her eyes sparkled. She turned so that her glowing face was fully visible. "I cannot believe that anything you occupy yourself with is dull, Mr. Hampton."
"I assure you that I am a thoroughly unremarkable man. I bore myself so much that I can barely stay awake."
"Well, you do not bore me," she said with a meaningful smile.
He speculated on why the viscountess had chosen to throw at him this golden-haired young lady of little wit, submissive grace, and dull loquaciousness. Since he had not pursued the more compelling women trotted out thus far, the viscountess and her friends had probably concluded he did not want interesting companionship in his home.
Since Lady Laclere had opened her circle to a woman she probably did not overly favor, and just for his benefit, he dutifully gave Mrs. Morrison serious consideration. She was more than attractive enough, and he suspected she would be pleasant to have in bed. She had a respectable fortune, and lovely breasts partly revealed by her decollete. Her manner indicated that she would be the sort of earnestly accommodating wife whom men were supposed to want. She would be a perfect prospect for a man seeking to secure domestic tranquility.
Regretfully, he was not such a man.
He lobbed a question about her young son. She took up the topic with the enthusiasm any good mother would show. While most of his mind listened to tales of the boy's antics and brilliance, a renegade corner of it composed a letter to the Viscountess Laclere.
My dear Lady Laclere,
I greatly appreciate the concern that you show for my future happiness. The parade of eligible females whom you have arranged for me to inspect these last few months has been impressive in its variety. I am touched, nay, I am moved, by your thoughtfulness. I must regretfully inform you, however, that your quest is in vain, as is that of the Duchess of Everdon, and the more subtle efforts of Mrs. St. John. I will not marry. Therefore, I respectfully request to be released from the social yoke that you have placed on me.
"My, she can certainly converse with the best of them, can't she?"
The low, throaty voice intruded on his letter before he could add his signature. It came on a hush of breath from the woman sitting to his right.
Senora Perez. Another married woman, and dangerous in her own way. One quite different from the viscountess.
Senora Perez was the wife of Raoul Perez, a diplomat from the young country of Venezuela who lived in London to promote his people's economic interests. They were present at this banquet because it was being hosted by the Viscount Laclere to celebrate the recent passage of the bill that abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, an event of momentous symbolism for all people in the Americas.
Julian had tried to ignore the fact that this married woman had intimated since their meeting that she found rough stones on smooth walls appealing and challenging.
He let the comment pass, but soon it was time to pay this other lady attention, as the conversation shifted to the right.
"Your English is exceptional, considering you only recently joined your husband here in London," he said.
"I have been studying your language and customs for years. I told Raoul that I would not come until I could make him proud, and not fumble like a peasant at parties such as this."
"You have succeeded admirably."
While she explained her studies, that mutinous corner of his mind wandered. He saw the bright colors and sharp contrasts of her land in his head. Crystal blue waters stretched along ivory beaches. Pirate ships bobbed in the surf as daring men hauled booty to shore, and chestnut-skinned women watched, clothed in reds and oranges and blues. An argument broke out over some gold, and swords were drawn, and metal clashed and storms blew in and the ocean churned in sublime fury and--
"You are not a man much given to social intercourse, are you, Mr. Hampton?" Her throaty voice carried a Spanish tinge, and nuances of other, more primitive cultures. Her dark eyes flashed humor at him, and her skin, the color of shelled almonds, appeared very exotic in her very British blue dinner dress.
"I regret that I was not blessed with the natural ease in such situations that many others enjoy."
"That is not true. I watched you in the drawing room. It is not lack of ease. You do not care for it. No doubt you know that your reserve is often misunderstood, but you do not care about that, either."
"Is it misunderstood? I would have thought it not worthy of notice at all."
"Men think you are proud, and just as dull as you claim."
"Perhaps they are correct on both counts."
"Women, however . . . well, women wonder what is in that head of yours, and what lurks under that armor of indifference, and what you think as you watch our human comedy play out on life's stage."
She exuded a carnality that no man could ignore, no matter what his armor. She wore her own lack of reserve like a flag, in the way of her more expressive culture.
"Is that what you wonder, madame?"
"Would it please you if I confide it all? Reveal the truth? Admit the contemplations that emerge in my silence?"
"I would love to know."
He cocked his head conspiratorially. "I think about . . ."
"Yes?" she encouraged.
"I think about what I will have for supper the next evening."
She leveled her dark eyes on him. "I consider it a great triumph that you deign even to tease me. I understand men such as you very well. Your reserve is more like that of my people than your own, you see. The silence smolders. I think with time that you would indeed reveal all, however. With the right incentive."
She let him know what incentive she meant. Her leg pressed his beneath the table.
Julian took a sip of wine and gazed through the flickering candles at Lady Laclere.
My dearest Viscountess,
Your hospitality at the banquet overwhelmed me. It is rare for a man to leave his home of an evening, and find himself within hours sitting with a prospective wife of handsome fortune and sweet demeanor on one side, and with a potential mistress of indubitable sensuality on the other. The opportunities which you have afforded me are truly generous. Unfortunately, a life of tedium waits with one woman, and an angry husband demanding satisfaction with the other. Therefore, I think it best to retreat from either pursuit and must, with some pain, refuse both gifts.
My sincere gratitude for the honor of the invitation, etc.; etc.
That night, back in his house on Russell Square, Julian sat down at his writing desk to compose another letter. This time he used pen and ink.
The events of the evening caused the words to flow in a rush of scratches. It was an outpouring to relieve an agitation of the spirit that needed release before it provoked bitterness and resentment.
My incomparable beloved,
Seven months you have been gone, and I fear you will never return. I await your brief, infrequent letters like a boy, desperate for any small indication that you remember I exist, hoping for evidence that you tire of that foreign land where you now live. I read your missives a hundred times for the slightest intimation that you will be coming home. The part of my mind that does nothing but wait grows daily, and soon nothing will be left to attend to life's duties. One word, my love, just one word; that is all I seek. One word to let me know that you will not stay away forever, and that I will at least have your presence and friendship in my life, even if I can never have your passion and your love.
The last phrase came much more slowly. The admission was essential to write, however. He had sworn to himself half a lifetime ago to have no illusions where this woman was concerned.
He did not bother with his signature. Calmer now, oddly so, he gazed down at the letter for a long while, then carefully folded it.
Opening a desk drawer, he glanced at a thick stack of similarly folded papers. Some contained letters like this, written to ease a brooding restlessness or explosive fury. Others held poems or stories in which love thrived in worlds much kinder to deep sentiment than this unromantic, practical Britain. The ones at the bottom, the oldest ones, already showed changes in the color of the ink as a hallmark of their age.
It had been a very long time since he had added anything to this drawer. Why tonight? Why had this mood gripped him as that dinner party wound its way through the dark hours?
Maybe it had been those two women. He normally did not mind that he could not accept what each offered, but tonight, as the evening wore on, he had minded very much. He resented like hell that playing the besotted lover was a role he could no longer pull off. For years he had pretended he could, but eventually the dishonesty of feigning the expected affection had disgusted him.
So it probably had something to do with the women. Each was tempting in her own way. Too tempting, in the case of Se–ora Perez. He had spent the night in a state of mild but aggravating arousal, and that had only fed the storm rising in him. Tomorrow he would deal with that part of the tempest in the efficient, soulless way he chose now, with a professional woman who did not want love and revelations.
He looked at the letter resting between his fingers. A cold resolve entered him. He would burn it, and the others. Destroy them all, and marry Mrs. Morrison and have an affair with Se–ora Perez and live a normal life. He was too old to be writing letters and poems that were never sent.
He gazed at the pile of papers, then to the low flames in the fireplace.
Julian barely heard the salutation and hardly felt the nudge.
He emerged out of a dream in which he was doing scandalous things to the sweet widow Mrs. Morrison. Since she had been talking all through it, he was not entirely sorry to have the fantasy interrupted.
"Sir, I regret to wake you, but she will not leave." His valet's face hung over his own, doleful in its distress, hovering like a ghost's in the night lamp's glow.
"Batkin, what the hell are you talking about?"
"I only heard the rapping on the door because my chamber is over the street and my window is open and I do not sleep well. There it was, this sound. Not even loud. Well, I stuck my head out and there was this person at the door, and I went down and it was a woman, a lady, and now she is inside and won't leave."
Julian sat up and his valet came into fuller view. Despite being dragged from his bed, Batkin looked pressed and perfect, but then if a valet could not get presentable quickly, who could?
"What is her name?"
"She will not tell me. She only insists that she must speak with you at once."
"Does she have an accent?" He did not think that Se–ora Perez would come here in the dead of night with so little encouragement, but one never knew. Considering that his body was taking time to recover from that dream, a ruthless part of him hoped she had been so bold.
"No, her voice is that of an English lady. Her hat has a veil that obscures her face, so I am at a loss to describe her. She does claim that she is one of your clients."
Julian swung his body and sat on the bed's edge. He doubted any client had business so vital it could not wait until morning, but if this one would not leave he had no choice except to meet with her.
"Put her in the library. I will dress and be down."
A half hour later he descended to the library, both annoyed and intrigued by the mystery of this invasion.
The lady in question sat on the divan facing the fireplace, with only her hat visible when he entered. He could see only the crown of the green millinery and its fluff of blue feathers and the edges of the blue netting hung from the brim.
But he knew who it was.
The night's earlier restlessness returned, only now as a glorious tumult of euphoria.
The Countess of Glasbury had returned to England. Penelope had come home.
Contrasting emotions assaulted Penelope as she sat in the library.
The strongest reactions, the ones that felt so good that it seemed her soul exhaled a long-held breath, were those of relief and safety. She might have emerged at port after a dangerous sea voyage.
Beneath that peace, however, lurked a distinct awkwardness, and a growing concern that Mr. Hampton would be shocked by her presence in his house.
She could not ignore that she had intruded on a man's abode in the dead of the night. It was a scandalous thing to do. After all, Mr. Hampton may be her confidante and adviser, but he was unmarried.
She had never seen where he lived before. He had moved to this large house five years ago, but he did not entertain and she had never entered it, just as she had never seen the rooms he kept prior to buying this handsome home.
Tonight that struck her as odd. After all, she had known him since they were little more than children. He was a good friend of her brothers, and the family solicitor, and was usually present at their parties. But his private life remained a mystery, just as he was in many ways an enigma.